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TSE  November 2015

TSE November 2015

Subject:

Fish, "How to Recognize a Poem When You See One"

From:

Carrol Cox <[log in to unmask]>

Reply-To:

T. S. Eliot Discussion forum.

Date:

Thu, 5 Nov 2015 09:56:48 -0600

Content-Type:

text/plain

Parts/Attachments:

Parts/Attachments

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Note: My personal opinion on Stanley  Fish is that he's something of a jerk;
I have profound disagreements with his work on Milton in _Surprised by Sin_.
Nevertheless, the following is of some interest in that it undercuts any
easy assumption that "literature" and "poem" can be at all clearly
distinguished from other uses of language. 

Carrol

nw18.american.edu
Fish, "How to Recognize a Poem When You See One"


    How to Recognize a Poem When You See One
    --Stanley Fish

    [1] Last time I sketched out an argument by which meanings are the
property neither of fixed and stable texts nor of free and independent
readers but of interpretive communities that are responsible both for the
shape of a reader's activities and for the texts those activities produce.
In this lecture I propose to extend that argument so as to account not only
for the meanings a poem might be said to have but for the fact of its being
recognized as a poem in the first place. And once again I would like to
begin with an anecdote.

    [2] In the summer of 1971 I was teaching two courses under the joint
auspices of the Linguistic Institute of America and the English Department
of the State University of New York at Buffalo. I taught these courses in
the morning and in the same room. At 9:30 I would meet a group of students
who were interested in the relationship between linguistics and literary
criticism. Our nominal subject was stylistics but our concerns were finally
theoretical and extended to the presuppositions and assumptions which
underlie both linguistic and literary practice. At 11:00 these students were
replaced by another group whose concerns were exclusively literary and were
in fact confined to English religious poetry of the seventeenth century.
These students had been learning how to identify Christian symbols and how
to recognize typological patterns and how to move from the observation of
these symbols and patterns to the specification of a poetic intention that
was usually didactic or homiletic. On the day I am thinking about, the only
connection between the two classes was an assignment given to the first
which was still on the blackboard at the beginning of the second. It read:

    Jacobs-Rosenbaum
    Levin
    Thorne
    Hayes
    Ohman (?)

    [3] I am sure that many of you will already have recognized the names on
this list, but for the sake of the record, allow me to identify them.

Roderick Jacobs and Peter Rosenbaum are two linguists who have coauthored a
number of textbooks and coedited a number of anthologies. Samuel Levin is a
linguist who was one of the first to apply the operations of
transformational grammar to literary texts. J. P. Thorne is a linguist at
Edinburgh who, like Levin, was attempting to extend the rules of
transformational grammar to the notorious ir-regularities of poetic
language. Curtis Hayes is a linguist who was then using transformational
grammar in order to establish an objective basis for his intuitive
impression that the language of Gibbon's Decline and Fall of the Roman
Empire is more complex than the language of Hemingway's novels. And Richard
Ohmann is the literary critic who, more than any other, was responsible for
introducing the vocabulary of transformational grammar to the literary
community. Ohmann's name was spelled as you see it here because I could not
remember whether it contained one or two n's. In other words, the question
mark in parenthesis signified nothing more than a faulty memory and a desire
on my part to appear scrupulous. The fact that the names appeared in a list
that was arranged vertically, and that Levin, Thorne, and Hayes formed a
column that was more or less centered in relation to the paired names of
Jacobs and Rosenbaum, was similarly accidental and was evidence only of a
certain compulsiveness if, indeed, it was evidence of anything at all.

    [4] In the time between the two classes I made only one change. I drew a
frame around the assignment and wrote on the top of that frame "p. 43." When
the members of the second class filed in I told them that what they saw on
the blackboard was a religious poem of the kind they had been studying and I
asked them to interpret it. Immediately they began to perform in a manner
that, for reasons which will become clear, was more or less predictable. The
first student to speak pointed out that the poem was probably a hieroglyph,
although he was not sure whether it was in the shape of a cross or an altar.
This question was set aside as the other students, following his lead, began
to concentrate on individual words, interrupting each other with suggestions
that came so quickly that they seemed spontaneous. The first line of the
poem (the very order of events assumed the already constituted status of the
object) received the most attention: Jacobs was explicated as a reference to
Jacob's ladder, traditionally allegorized as a figure for the Christian
ascent to heaven. In this poem, however, or so my students told me, the
means of ascent is not a ladder but a tree, a rose tree or rosenbaum. This
was seen to be an obvious reference to the Virgin Mary who was often
characterized as a rose without thorns, itself an emblem of the immaculate
conception. At this point the poem appeared to the students to be operating
in the familiar manner of an iconographic riddle. It at once posed the
question, "How is it that a man can climb to heaven by means of a rose
tree?" and directed the reader to the inevitable answer: by the fruit of
that tree, the fruit of Mary's womb, Jesus. Once this interpretation was
established it received support from, and conferred significance on, the
word "thorne," which could only be an allusion to the crown of thorns, a
symbol of the trial suffered by Jesus and of the price he paid to save us
all. It was only a short step (really no step at all) from this insight to
the recognition of Levin as a double reference, first to the tribe of Levi,
of whose priestly function Christ was the fulfillment, and second to the
unleavened bread carried by the children of Israel on their exodus from
Egypt, the place of sin, and in response to the call of Moses, perhaps the
most familiar of the old testament types of Christ. The final word of the
poem was given at least three complementary readings: it could be "omen,"
especially since so much of the poem is concerned with foreshadowing and
prophecy; it could be Oh Man, since it is mans story as it intersects with
the divine plan that is the poem's subject; and it could, of course, be
simply "amen," the proper conclusion to a poem celebrating the love and
mercy shown by a God who gave his only begotten son so that we may live.

    [5] In addition to specifying significances for the words of the poem
and relating those significances to one another, the students began to
discern larger structural patterns. It was noted that of the six names in
the poem three--Jacobs, Rosenbaum, and Levin--are Hebrew, two--Thorne and
Hayes--are Christian, and one--Ohman--is ambiguous, the ambiguity being
marked in the poem itself (as the phrase goes) by the question mark in
parenthesis. This division was seen as a reflection of the basic distinction
between the old dis-pensation and the new, the law of sin and the law of
love. That distinction, however, is blurred and finally dissolved by the
typological perspective which invests the old testament events and heroes
with new testament meanings. The structure of the poem, my students
concluded, is therefore a double one, establishing and undermining its basic
pattern (Hebrew vs. Christian) at the same time. In this context there is
finally no pressure to resolve the ambiguity of Ohman since the two possible
readings--the name is Hebrew, the name is Christian--are both authorized by
the reconciling presence in the poem of Jesus Christ. Finally, I must report
that one student took to counting letters and found, to no one's surprise,
that the most prominent letters in the poem were S, O, N.

    [6] Some of you will have noticed that I have not yet said anything
about Hayes. This is because of all the words in the poem it proved the most
recalcitrant to interpretation, a fact not without consequence, but one
which I will set aside for the moment since I am less interested in the
details of the exercise than in the ability of my students to perform it.
What is the source of that ability? How is it that they were able to do what
they did? What is it that they did? These questions are important because
they bear directly on a question often asked in literary theory. What are
the distinguishing features of literary language? Or, to put the matter more
colloquially, How do you recognize a poem when you see one? The commonsense
answer, to which many literary critics and linguists are committed, is that
the act of recognition is triggered by the observable presence of
dis-tinguishing features. That is, you know a poem when you see one because
its language displays the characteristics that you know to be proper to
poems. This, however, is a model that quite obviously does not fit the
present example. My students did not proceed from the noting of
distinguishing features to the recognition that they were confronted by a
poem; rather, it was the act of recognition that came first--they knew in
advance that they were dealing with a poem-- and the distinguishing features
then followed.

Full at


http://nw18.american.edu/~dfagel/Class%20Readings/Fish/HowToRecognizeAPoem.h
tm

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